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Gene “editing”: The devil is in the details


Grace Emily Stark - published on 08/14/17

CRISPR technology and the borders of morally licit gene editing

By now, you may have heard that researchers in Oregon have announced that they were the first to “edit” human embryos in the United States, using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. More recently, the team of scientists, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, published their results in the journal Nature. The article describes how the researchers successfully replaced a flawed MYBPC3 gene – a mutation which causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the leading cause of sudden death in young athletes – with a normal, healthy version of the MYBPC3 gene, in 42 out of 58 early embryos. These are exciting results, with myriad implications for those with dangerous, heritable diseases, but there are also many reasons to be concerned with using CRISPR technology to edit our, and our children’s, genes.

Imagine that you have a life-threatening or extremely debilitating genetic disease, with the high likelihood of passing the condition on to your future biological children. Maybe this is, in fact, your reality. Perhaps you’re wondering why it would be such a bad thing to “edit” the problematic genes out of your embryo’s genetic code, so they would no longer have the disease, nor pass it on to their future children. It’s true that in certain circumstances, this could be a perfectly licit way to use CRISPR; John DiCamillo, an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, confirmed that there could be ethical uses of CRISPR in an interview with the Catholic News Agency. But, as with many technological advances in human reproduction, the devil is in the details.

For example, each one of the embryos experimented on by the Oregon researchers was created using in-vitro fertilization (IVF) technology. This is morally problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is the troubling fact that these lives were created in a lab for purely experimental purposes. According to the MIT Technology Review, the embryos were only allowed to develop for a few days, presumably before being destroyed. From the outset, the researchers never intended to implant the embryos in a womb. The creation and destruction of life for experimentation can never be morally licit, no matter how promising the results may prove to be for future generations. Yet, this is only one of the many aspects of the Oregon scientists’ research that is concerning.

It is also troubling to realize that if scientists have found a way to completely “edit out” a gene from the germline (meaning, the effect will also be realized in the edited individual’s germ cells – either sperm or eggs, depending on his or her sex), then whole genes may eventually be eradicated from future generations, and eventually, our entire human population. Now, this may not be a bad thing when it comes to deadly conditions like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, but what about other disabilities and/or conditions like Down syndrome, deafness, etc., which may not be deadly, but may make life challenging? What about shortness, fatness – even skin color? The potential for such technology to be used for eugenic purposes – to truly create the “perfect” human by arbitrary standards – is troublingly obvious. I fear that this technology will also make the use of assisted reproductive technology (like IVF, a billion-dollar, highly unregulated industry) even more appealing for individuals seeking “perfect,” healthy children, whether they are able to have children naturally or not.

While the use of CRISPR gene editing technology for therapeutic purposes in the case of deadly diseases would be a true good, the lines between morally licit and morally suspect editing may prove all too easy to cross. It is right to fear that our technology may be evolving faster than our ability to reason through all of the ethical implications, much like we see with the millions of frozen “leftover” embryos as a result of IVF – a serious, heartbreaking problem that no one can seem to solve.

Furthermore, until scientists can safely use the technology on embryos conceived naturally, it will only be possible to use it under morally illicit circumstances. Therefore, while many heralded the Oregon researchers’ announcement with excitement, many also responded with a healthy dose of cautious optimism – even apprehension. It will be up to those individuals, many of whom are Catholic, to continue urging restraint and respect for human dignity as this technology continues to progress.

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